Languid Laos - 2007

LANGUID LAOS Travel Arrangements: Asia Transpacific Journeys Author: Lois Olive Gray Photography: Kay Ellen Gilmour

2007 - Laos This journal is the second in the series of our four- week trip that started in Bhutan, followed by visits to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bali in that order.

LANGUID LAOS

C ONTENTS BRIEF HISTORY........................................................................................................................................3 ECONOMY .................................................................................................................................................3 THE PEOPLE ..............................................................................................................................................4 RELIGION AND EDUCATION.................................................................................................................5 ACCOMMODATIONS ...............................................................................................................................5 MONKS BEGGING ....................................................................................................................................8 NIGHT MARKET .......................................................................................................................................9 MEKONG RIVER .....................................................................................................................................12 RIVER CRUISE ........................................................................................................................................13 THE “KOLOSSAL” KUANGSI ...............................................................................................................17 THE BACI CEREMONY..........................................................................................................................18 FINAL........................................................................................................................................................19

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BRIEF HISTORY The Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos is a poor country and has been since the 18th century when it was conquered by Thailand (then Siam). Prior to that time, the government was a monarchy established in the 14th century. Its territory was much larger than today’s because it included large parts of present-day Cambodia and Thailand as well as the current territory of Laos itself. Siam controlled the little country (about the size of Utah at present) until the 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. Its fortunes have been in decline ever since. In 1907, the present day borders were established though there are still some islands in the Mekong River that are disputed between Thailand and Laos. The country is landlocked. In 1975, the country was taken over by the Pathet Lao and it remains a communist country with only one political party permitted. Though the National Assembly is elected by direct vote of everyone over 18 years old, there is no choice among candidates. ECONOMY Since 1986, the government has been allowing more free enterprise and trade with other nations. Because of this change in policy, a 6% growth rate has been sustained since then. However, because economic improvement started from a very low point, conditions are still very primitive in the country. Electricity is available only in a few cities and that on a limited basis. There are no railroads and the highway system is rudimentary at best. Both external and internal communications are limited though use of cell phone technology is growing steadily. Subsistence agriculture employs 69% of the population and the major product is rice. There are some natural resources in the country, chiefly timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold and gemstones. But these assets have not been exploited in any significant way. Despite its economic poverty, the country is rich in natural beauty. It is tropical but also quite mountainous with copious flowers, fruits and trees. Perhaps the biggest tourist draw (and the country is working at improving its tourist business) is World Heritage Site designation conferred on the city we visited—Luang Prabang—by UNESCO. We were very surprised to find a 5-star hotel in the city and there were probably others that we did not see. After having just visited the happy people of Bhutan and the busy “on-the-make” folks in Thailand, we were disheartened a bit with the impression we had of a much less contented people.

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There were few smiles on faces in the streets, the service people we dealt with were reserved and rather glum, and there seemed to be an air of desuetude in the city.

THE PEOPLE The 6,522,000 people (50,000 of them were killed in the Viet Nam war bombing) of Laos are mostly Buddhist (65%) but it is a different branch of the religion than the Tibetan variety we experienced in Bhutan. Furthermore, the religion doesn’t seem as interpenetrated in the lives of the individual people or the society. Literacy stands at 69% and the average age of the citizens is 19. In Luang Prabang where we stayed, most people spoke Lao and French, with little English heard by us. Kemphet, our guide, a man in his early 40s, told us he had taught himself English because he thought he could see an advantage in that skill since more and more tourists from English-speaking countries are visiting. Australians are the most numerous of the English-speaking visitors. His English was thickly accented and not nearly so good as Kelzang’s, our Bhutanese guide. Our visit was short, only three days, so our impressions are certainly of limited validity, but it was interesting that all four of us felt pretty much the same about the country. An interesting thing we learned that speaks to the feelings of inferiority the people as a whole must experience is the fact that the world does not even call the nation by its preferred name: Lao. It was the French who added the “s” to the name because they found it difficult to pronounce without that final consonant. So even after 65 years of independence from France, the country cannot even demand its own historic and preferred name. Our guide revealed a bit of defensiveness about his country’s governance as well. He sees his communist country as a democracy and stressed the free elections several times. The small size of its population no doubt is a deterrent to the country’s economic progress. The communist regime is trying to reach out for greater trading possibilities and works in cooperation with several international organizations, including most surprisingly the International Monetary Fund. It has achieved trading partner status with the US after much effort, but its major trade partners are still Thailand, Vietnam and China. The major exports are rice and constructed clothing along with hydropower.

Luang Prabang is a small city and not overcrowded with automobiles and trucks. Many more bicycles and scooters use the roads than cars. It is also a city easy to explore on foot. The city

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is built at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers and it is ringed round with thickly forested mountains.

RELIGION AND EDUCATION It was surprising to us to discover that though a communist government has been in control for so many years, it has never acted to suppress Buddhism. There are many “wats,” as the temple/ monastery complexes are called, in and around the city and monks are much in evidence. Most male children still attend Buddhist schools because they often supply the only formal education available to all but the richest citizens. Our guide told us that most young boys and men stay in the schools until they are 18. It is at that age they will be expected to decide whether or not they want to enter religious life permanently. Parents can choose to send their sons to these schools at age 6 or 7 or at any time between then and 18. Kemphet entered at age 15 and left at 18; though he was never interested in becoming a monk, he indicated that he was grateful for the education afforded him. ACCOMMODATIONS Our other big surprise was our 5-star hotel: La Residence Phou Vao. It was superb in every way: beautiful public areas, grand and comfortable rooms with balconies overlooking the city and the temple on Phousi Hill. The meals were French influenced and delicious and the restaurant also offered samples of Laotian specialties as well. The outdoor pool was beautiful during the day, but at night it was really something to see because lights were strung across its surface to wink and glitter at poolside diners. Hanging lanterns rocked in the breeze as they adorned the surrounding trees and shrubs. The green water reflected everything back to us as we dined alfresco at poolside. The Phousi Hill temple stood above the scene in the distance, gilded and radiant. Really quite a treat to enjoy delicious meals served so correctly in such scenery!

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MONKS BEGGING One morning we arose very early to watch the monks go on their “begging” rounds to obtain the sticky rice that would feed them at noon and again the next morning. It was a drizzly day but the monks in three separate groups in the area where we observed came down the street swinging their begging bowls as they passed the townspeople lining the street. The monks presented the bowls and the lay folk filled them with sticky rice. The custom in Lao, unlike that in Bhutan, is that monks eat only two meals a day—one before dawn and the other before noon. They then fast until the next morning. Even the young monks must adhere to this seemingly cruel discipline for young growing boys. The monks in their yellow- orange robes and bright umbrellas made a colorful parade but even this scene in Luang Prabang was dispiriting, rather than demonstrative of a meaningful devotion.

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NIGHT MARKET Another potentially interesting experience seemed more deflating than fun as well: our visit to the night market near town center. It was crowded with many stalls and lots of people including more tourist than we had seen in Bhutan. In general, the market appeared to exist for the natives themselves since t ere was little in the way of specifically tourist items on sale. Instead, there were things of practice. l use to the folks themselves arrayed in the stalls. There was also a plentiful amount of food being prepared and sold to one another. We could scarcely comprehend that all that food would be sold in one night. However, we had to admit that much of it looked delicious, especially the glazed and roasted chickens. But we were too afraid to buy food from the streets so we just feasted with our eyes. The people around us did not appear to be having much fun since smiles were as scarce as the tourist trinkets! Kemphet prevailed over our concern about eating street food and talked us into sampling a favorite snack of Laotians. It is a round cracker made of cassava and sweet potatoes. These ingredients are cooked and pounded together and then flattened like a taco and placed on bamboo frames to dry. They are then ready to consume and we were happily surprised at how delicious these little morsels were. They are rather salty-sweet and the texture is very pleasing. More to the point, none of us suffered any ill effects from our munching—except some extra calories.

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In the late afternoon, we climbed the 355 steps to the top of Phousi Hill to visit the temple there. Those steps were not so bad going up for me with my injured ankle but walking back down was a taxing experience. However, the fine views of the city with its rivers and wats from that height was well worth the struggle. The temple on the top was built in 1804 and is the crown jewel of the temples spread all over the sides of the hill in the center of town.

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MEKONG RIVER The visit to Lao was also our introduction to the mighty and very important Mekong River. Of course we were familiar with its name since how vital it is to other countries as well, such as Lao, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (old Burma), and China. The Mekong forms the international we had lived through the Viet Nam war era, but we did not realize borders between China and Myanmar, between Myanmar and Laos, between Myanmar and Thailand, between Thailand and Laos, between Laos and Cambodia and between both these countries and Vietnam. The unstable course of the river has created conflicts about the exact placement of borders and about claims to islands in the river. Depending on where geographers begin their measurements of this river (and there is controversy about the actual origin though all agree it is somewhere in China), they call it the longest river in Southeast Asia, the 7 th longest in Asia, and 11 th longest in the world — somewhere between 2700 and 3000 miles long. Only the Amazon has more species of fish and the Mekong wins the prize for the most varieties of giant fish! Ninety million people rely heavily on the Mekong for food, water, irrigation, and employment. This dependence is particularly strong in Lao and Cambodia, two of the world’s poorest countries. There is a commission composed of all the countries concerned with the Mekong which tries to insure fairness in sharing the river’s bounty; however, China and Myanmar are not signatories and China is the country which has done most to disturb the river through widespread dam construction in its territory. This has resulted in the extinction of several large fish species and an ominous decline in the numbers of many other species. Cambodia and Lao in particular need the periodic flooding by the Mekong to replenish the fertility of their land and the Chinese dams have already affected the yearly flow to those countries. To date, the Chinese have been completely oblivious of the distress caused to other peoples who live along the Mekong. The Myanmar government has built some dams as well but these are not as numerous and have a less devastating consequence so far; however, the military junta there is just as unconcerned with downstreameffects.

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RIVER CRUISE

We took a fascinating cruise on the reddish-brown river using a distinctive Laotian craft—a very slender and long canoe-like boat with a canopy over the passenger section. The boat is painted garishly and gaily with bright colors, belying the dour personalities displayed by its owners. The ride took us past mostly uninhabited shoreline where we did see many people fishing, children playing in the water along the banks, farmers digging in damp streamside soils, dogs patrolling, and some egrets eyeing the waters hopefully The jungle growth lining the waters was tropical in appearance and very dense. We were being taken to some “hidden caves” on the left side where the river’s erosive power had carved out large “rooms” in the rocks facing the shore. Over many centuries, people have climbed into the lower and upper chambers to place statues of the Buddha. Now there are thousands of small Buddha figures in every nook and cranny of the cave-like rooms. Concrete steps have been built to make it easier to access the chambers and many people come to pray there and many come just to see the incredible array of statues made of every conceivable material from stone to metal to wood and pottery. Even through wars, unrest, poverty and misery, the caves have not been disturbed. The Buddha looks serenely out from the darkness of the chambers in all his many shapes. The Mekong itself gave us a smooth

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ride in both directions but at rainy season it can apparently be much more turbulent with swift and conflicting currents.

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Our lunch that day was taken in a village restaurant across the river from the Pak Ok caves. We had fresh fish from the river and it was absolutely delicious. Our usual drinks were beer and wine for Micki and Dan and Fanta Orange drinks for us. This little restaurant had all these beverages. Sides are usually potatoes and veggies. On our return boat ride back to the city, we stopped at a little village of weavers. It was small and filled with local shops where the ladies spin their own silk threads from the silkworm cocoons and create their own beautiful patterns when they weave tablecloths, bedspreads, shawls, skirts, placemats, napkins, and just about anything else you can imagine in silk. We greatly admired one young lady’s creations of abstract patterns in beautiful earth colors, looking almost like something from our Southwest. So we bought a table-runner from her. She could not take a credit card and we had no cash with us. So she promised to come to our hotel with the runner where we would be able to pay her in cash. She was as good as her word and appeared with the runner about an hour after we had arrived, having made the trip on her motorscooter!

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THE “KOLOSSAL” KUANGSI

Laos is home to an enormous waterfall (the Kuang Si Falls) not too far out from Luang Prabang and we were taken out to a national park to see it in fairly full spate since the rainy season had recently ended. The cataract is quite high and there are three distinct levels for the waters to leap. It is beautiful in its power and its thunderous music as the water crashes down into the plunge pool. Quite a good spot for photographers and “gawkers” like me. The ride through the lovely countryside was a wonderful part of the visit to the falls as well. So green and serene with all the rice paddies and tiny villages punctuating our drive as well as excellent sightings of the stolid water buffalo looking as if they were carved from granite.

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THE BACI CEREMONY On our last night in the country, Kay and I enjoyed a very moving ceremony (even if it had been arranged and paid for by our guide) at a community center in downtown Luang Prabang. Micki and Dan had already participated in a similar ceremony and decided to stay at the hotel. We were driven downtown and walked about two blocks off the main street and entered a typical stilt house to find about 30 Laotian people sitting cross-legged on the floor around a beautifully constructed conical flower arrangement with all sorts of interesting looking food trays laid out beneath it. There were three musicians playing native instruments against one wall. None of the folks present, except our guide Kemphet, spoke any English. As soon as we were introduced and sat down, the ceremony began. The oldest person in the room, a 60ish distinguished gentleman, began the singing. All the other folks, men and women, of all ages probably down to about 30 joined in, following his lead. The musicians accompanied them and it was quite lovely and different from other national music we have heard. When they had completed four songs, they invited us to eat from the trays and to drink the local wine. It was quite strong but tasty and the dainties were delicious, some sweet and some savory. Kemphet told us a little about the people and their civic club that was dedicated to bettering the lives of the people in their community. At one point, the little clubhouse lost its electricity but it was clear that this outage was not atypical nor was it confined to this building. There was much timorous giggling and tittering until the lights returned. The last part of the ceremony was the “leave-taking blessing.” Kemphet explained that it is the Laotian custom to give travelers a send-off to help keep them safe during their travels. This is done for anyone traveling, not just for tourists. As the singing began again, about 15 of the people approached Kay and I, one by one, to tie a white cotton string around our right wrists. They each said a short prayer as they fastened the string. In the end, we had a bracelet of 15 strings around our wrists and had had 15 safe travel prayers said on our behalf. It was really touching to be included in such a ceremony and to finally see some smiling and friendly faces on Laotian people. We were really glad that we had decided to go with Kemphet to meet these lovely and gentle people. It was a very touching farewell to this beautiful but very poor country which is still so primitive and backward in its economy, but not in its civilized behavior towards visitors.

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FINAL The echoes of history were never far from us in Lao, not only the fairly recent history in which the USA figured so violently, but also the more distant past in which these people were so often conquered, mistreated, robbed of their land and patrimony. If only we could have believed that the future held more for these gentle people, we could have enjoyed our visit more. However, the tight grip of communism’s control of the government left us with little optimism for favorable development here. The people themselves seem downtrodden enough that they appear to have no intimations of future happiness. Young people in particular are being held down by the lack of education to help them participate in a world economy. Past and future don’t seem all that different for these people, at least it appeared so to us during our short time with them.

Now it's time to move on to Vietnam

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